Interview: 10 Years of Wooster Collective

Sara and Marc Schiller founded Wooster Collective to document the beautiful and fleeting street art that surrounded them throughout their neighborhood in New York City. What once started as a way to share their photos with friends evolved into a hub for worldwide street art on the internet. Since they started their website, they’ve helped curate exhibits, sat on panels, and published books.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of To celebrate, they collaborated with Jonathan Levine Gallery to curate 10 Years of Wooster Collective: 2003 – 2013, which was held at a pop-up gallery space in Chelsea, featuring work from artists such as Shepard Fairey, Swoon, Space Invader, Paul Insect, The Flower Guy, and FAILE. We caught up with Wooster Collective founders Sara and Marc Schiller to talk about its history, the pop-up gallery show, their love of New York City, and the importance of street art.

What inspired you to start Wooster Collective?

I think it was really our neighborhood, our environment. We’ve always loved New York City, we’ve been living here for many years and when we moved into the West Village, we started to explore our new neighborhood. One day, I stopped and realized that there was a beautiful piece of artwork that was wheatpasted (at the time I didn’t really know what that was) on a wall. It was very delicate and very special and I was struck by that. I was struck that somebody had put art back into the city. This was before Flickr and photo sharing on mobile phones, so now it sounds obvious, but then it was as if we had opened up a manhole cover and there was a whole other city underneath us. Sara and I realized that the city was exploding with art, that there was art everywhere. We started to document it and do what I think a lot of people do. It’s like a little memento because we know it’s ephemeral. After a year, we had captured so much street art in our neighborhood that my computer started crashing since I had so many photographs. I was going to delete all of the photos, but Sara suggested I upload them to the internet and we did. We started with this thumbnail thing and we emailed it to about 10 of our friends and suddenly, tens of thousands of people were looking at them. After that, blogging came out so we started to document and share things, kind of the same thing we’re doing now. The timing was interesting because mass media wasn’t really talking about street art in a positive way, only in the lens of vandalism, and we were celebrating it and loving it and sharing it. I think that the time was one where people around the world realized that there were others that were also thinking the same way about public space and about creativity, and it just started to evolve.

Why do you think street art is so important to document?

I think Marc and I would agree that street art humanizes a city. The documentation really comes from it being ephemeral. If you don’t document it, in a sense, it wasn’t there. It’s really the act of putting it up that’s the important part. We always say to people get out and walk around your city and see the art for yourselves, don’t just look at it online because it’s so much more than that. What really motivates us are site-specific pieces, pieces where the artist has thought about the neighborhood, who’s walking by, what are the stores, what is the architecture, and how their piece is going to interact with the environment around it.

I think spontaneity is an incredibly powerful and humanizing thing. You can buy your way into being in somebody’s consciousness through them experiencing it outdoors, you can buy a billboard, you can buy ad space, you can do all that, but the artist doesn’t really have that ability, but at the same time wants to have the power that advertisers have and wants to have the ability to make an impact. You have to take the space to do that. You can’t always ask for it, because you don’t get it. You’re walking down the street and you look down to see a stencil of Gandhi or when you are rushing to the subway to get to work and all of a sudden you look up to see a beautiful wheatpaste by Swoon or a piece by Faile or somebody you don’t know about and it’s completely anonymous and unauthorized. There’s no way to connect it to anything, and that’s a wonderful way to live, where every day, the city becomes a playground and every day can be a treasure hunt not knowing what you’re going to find.

What are some highlights of work you've exhibited on your site in the past 10 years?

A lot of the Banksy stuff I would say. We’ve been fortunate enough to have a relationship with him over the years and I think when he went into the museums in New York City and put his art up, nobody knew and at 7:00 AM he reached out to us to put the photographs online and the museums literally didn’t know that the work was still on their walls. I think that was a pretty amazing day. Others had done it, he wasn’t the first to co-opt museums, but he was the first to do it at that kind of scale. To be honest with you, every day is pretty amazing. Ten years of doing this every single day, there are some days when maybe it’s not the most inspiring thing in the world, but those days are really few.

There’s also been some really amazing intimate moments when people have really shared things that are personal to them with the rest of the world on the site like when Swoon who for many years people thought was a guy, as we say, she came out as a “she-momma.” We’ve had young kids who were just experimenting with art who we’ve put up on the site and gave them that confidence and validation who then went on to great art schools. Those things you don’t plan for – they happen in the same way the art happens, but what Marc and I have always said is that the art is wonderful, but the people behind it are so amazing. They’re so smart, complicated, thoughtful, intense people. It’s a rare bird who chooses to do this.

There’s an aspect of any unauthorized act that maybe can be perceived as aggressive, but at the end of the day, what we’re celebrating is the act of beautification of derelict and negligent space. Why is it okay to live in a neighborhood with a massive ugly gray wall and not have the ability to beautify that, to create something out of it? For us, the website and the photographs are the entry point to meet a community of people that think the same way, and that the artists are really special people. These often aren’t people that have a lot of money, they might have nothing, and if you’re willing to get arrested and spend three days in jail, which is not fun and not cheap and not a badge of honor for anybody, because you want to put your art in a doorway that’s been boarded up with trash all over it and you want to use that environment as a canvas to say something about the city that you live in, that person is pretty incredible who is willing to do that and that’s what Sara and I really get out of this.

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